Sustainability : or just Sustainababble?

What exactly is sustainability? Author and scientist Haydn Washington asks if it has become such and overused word as to become meaningless, rather than a key concept of the age.

Haydn Washington argues the term 'sustainable development' reflects a society in denial

Haydn Washington argues the term 'sustainable development' reflects a society in denial

Sydney, Australia, April 2015- Consider some key facts: 60% of ecosystem services are degrading; we have exceeded three ‘planetary limits’ (extinction, climate, nitrate pollution); the Earth’s ecological footprint is more than 1.5 Earths and the Living Planet Index has dropped by 52 percent. Meanwhile, extinction is at least 1,000-fold above the normal levels in the fossil record. In 2009, Peter Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and colleagues pointed out that if we continue as we are, by 2100 two thirds of all life on Earth may be extinct.

But in 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) made the terms 'sustainable development' and 'sustainability' famous. Despite that, we have become hugely more unsustainable in the last 38 years.

So we have a major problem; our society is fundamentally unsustainable. But what are the key drivers of this? First is overpopulation, there are too many people on Earth, consuming at too high a level. Various authors put the ecologically sustainable human population at around two to three billion, yet it is now 7.3 billion and may reach 10.9 billion by 2050.

Given that we know we have exceeded ecological limits, it would seem obvious that population increase is a driver for environmental degradation. However, ‘overpopulation’ as a key driver of unsustainability is still commonly ignored by most or even angrily denied.

Then comes over-consumption. As economist Paul Ekins has noted, a sustainable ‘consumer’ society is actually a contradiction in terms. Since 1960, population has grown by a factor of 2.2, while consumption has gone up sixfold. If the entire world were to adopt American or Australian lifestyles, we would need at least four more planets to supply them. This can’t happen.

We need to confront the ‘Endless Growth’ myth. This is the mantra of neoliberalism and most governments and business. Proponents seek always to ‘bake a bigger cake’ rather than share the cake we have more equitably. Those who question this are castigated in both the media and academia.

Many academics now regularly talk about ‘green growth’ or ‘sustainable growth’. However, no physical growth today is either ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ (except perhaps growth in renewable energy that replaces something worse).

So is sustainability the same as sustainable development? This is a key question rarely asked. WCED assumed growth was the only way to reach sustainability. But the reality is that endless growth is actually the cause of unsustainability.

If the term ‘growth’ comes from ‘development’ in ‘sustainable development’, then this cannot be the same as any meaningful ‘sustainability’. Sustainable growth is really a sleight-of-hand that has been used to justify continuing our unsustainable ‘business-as-usual’ path. Sadly, humanity has a key problem – denial. Particularly about 'sustainable development'. We have a long history of denying things we don’t like.

Robert Engelman was the originator of the description 'sustainababble'

Robert Engelman was the originator of the description 'sustainababble'

However, the denial dam can be broken. We need to ask what ‘sustainability’ cannot be. It cannot be what Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute has christened ‘sustainababble’ – it cannot mean all things to all people. Neither can it be a denial of reality, we must accept our problems and solve them.

It cannot ignore the ecological limits of the Earth, and cannot be about endless physical growth on a finite planet. It cannot be about the substitution of money for ecosystem services. And it cannot be ethics-free, or based on a ‘human supremacy’ approach, where humanity always seeks to be the ‘master’.

Meaningful sustainability must be used to help solve our environmental crisis, and the entwined social and economic crises.

The key task is to break the denial dam and accept the reality; we have problems, we need to accept and solve them. It won’t be easy but it is still possible, although urgent.

What task could be as challenging – but also as necessary, ethical and exciting?

This article was first published in the RGS magazine, Geographical.

Haydn Washington is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Environmental Studies, UNSW, Australia.

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